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What Makes Laws Unjust?

Among the commentaries that most dramatically frame the tension between law and justice are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” (1963), one of the most celebrated writings of the Second Reconstruction, and subsequent critiques by jurists, most notably future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr.’s “A Lawyer Looks at Civil Disobedience” (1966).

King composed “Letter From Birmingham Jail” while imprisoned for leading a demonstration in defiance of an injunction in Birmingham, Alabama on Good Friday 1963. He wrote it over the course of a week, scribbling on whatever scraps of paper he could scrounge before handing the notes to his lawyers for a secretary to type them out. Drafts would then be sent back to King for revision and supplementation.

The letter responded to a statement by eight white clergymen published in January 1963. With school desegregation rulings looming, the eight men had urged white people to eschew protest in the street and instead take their complaints to court. Three months later, in the midst of King-led demonstrations, they wrote again, this time criticizing “a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.” In their view, segregation in Birmingham could be best addressed by “citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation.” Again the clergy urged dissatisfied parties to bring their cause to the courts and to forgo protests. “We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry,” the eight proclaimed, “to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

King’s response was not wholly spontaneous. The year before, the New York Albany News had solicited a letter from him during his jailing in Albany, Georgia. Prior to that he had considered publicly rebuking southern white moderate religious leaders. In Birmingham, facing censure from white clergy, King finally delivered that rebuke. Featuring the logic and rhetorical moves of a well-written brief, the letter repeatedly disputes the accuracy of King’s adversaries. He maintains that, even if their claims had been accurate, their arguments would still be deficient.

First, King denies their charge that he is an interloper, pointing out that his Southern Christian Leadership Conference had a Birmingham affiliate and that, indeed, the head of that affiliate, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, had invited King to town. More fundamentally, however, King challenges the insider-outsider dichotomy. “I am in Birmingham,” King wrote because “injustice is here” and “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

King similarly challenges the accuracy of the clergymen’s contrast between his purportedly extreme conduct and the putatively restrained behavior of city officials, including the police. Elaborating on why the contrast “profoundly” troubles him, King responds

I don’t believe you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its angry violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I don’t believe you would so quickly commend the policemen if you would observe their ugly and inhuman treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you would watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you would see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys, if you will observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I’m sorry that I can’t join you in your praise of the police department.

King asserts as well that he, Reverend Shuttlesworth, and other activists had negotiated in good faith with public and private authorities in Birmingham only to see agreements betrayed.

Read entire article at Boston Review